Mark Wilson June 12th, 2013
CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–One of the treats of many small scientific meetings, like the International Bryozoology Association conference I am attending now, is that we can have a variety of short field trips for all participants. Today we packed into two buses and spent the afternoon and evening in the city of Syracuse south of Catania.
Syracuse was founded by Greek colonists (primarily Corinthians) over 2700 years ago. It was the home of Archimedes. He was famously killed there by a Roman soldier when the city was captured in 212 BCE. Cicero called Syracuse “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”. The Syracusan tyrant Hiero I (who ruled from 478 to 466 BCE) built the outdoor theater shown at the top of this page. (Don’t call it an “amphitheater”!) Just above is a view of the ancient entrance to the theater above the seats. Greek engineers diverted a stream here to fill fountains and pools and eventually flow down to the front of the theater for refreshment and sometimes to be part of the performances. The theater is still used, so wooden seats have been fixed over much of the ancient stone.
Behind the theater is this large ancient limestone quarry. You can make out a couple of pillars left in place on the quarry floor, along with characteristic vertical walls and square corners. The sturdy rock here was used to build the city and its walls.
On one side of the quarry is this unusual cave called The Ear of Dionysius. It is 23 meters high and goes back about 65 meters. It has an uncanny resemblance to a human ear, hence at least one possible reason for the name. Inside it has smooth walls and a serpentine curve much like a meandering stream. The acoustics are unusual. Apparently even whispers inside can be heard at certain points above the cave’s entrance. The tyrant Dionysius is said to have placed his prisoners in there so that he could listen to their secrets (or to their tortured screams). There is considerable debate (which was repeated in our group) about whether this was all carved by quarriers or is a natural water-eroded slot canyon then modified for human use.
Carl Simpson and Paul Taylor showing stylish Italian straw hats on our trip.
At dinner this evening we had this wonderful view of the ancient harbor of Syracuse as the sun set and moon appeared above. Across the water on the end of the promontory is the Castello Maniace, which was originally completed as a fortification in 1240. King Ferdinand III gave this structure to none other than Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1799 for services rendered to the Kingdom of Naples. It stayed in private English hands until 1982 when it was given to the province of Catania.
I would describe the dinner, but you probably wouldn’t believe how many various Sicilian treats we had, including the inevitable octopus. It was a memorable evening in the middle of our intense conference.